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PKK fighters to withdraw from Turkey next month

Kurdish rebel leader says fighters will begin withdrawing from Turkey next month in the first stage of a plan to end nearly three decades of war. Thomas Seibert reports from Istanbul

ISTANBUL // Kurdish rebel fighters will begin withdrawing from Turkey next month, their leader said yesterday, the first stage of a plan to end nearly three decades of war.

"A new era has begun," Murat Karayilan told reporters at the headquarters of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq. "The withdrawal will start on May 8, 2013," the ANF news agency, a PKK mouthpiece, quoted him as saying.

The withdrawal would be the first stage in a peace process that could lead to the permanent disarmament of fighters loyal to the PKK, which was founded by Abdullah Ocalan and took up arms against Turkey in 1984.

Mr Ocalan has been jailed by Turkey since 1999 but his negotiations with the Turkish intelligence service, which started in December last year, have reached "a point of no return", according to Turkey's foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

Mr Karayilan, acting PKK leader since Mr Ocalan's capture, said the PKK's withdrawal from Turkey to northern Iraq could end a conflict in which 40,000 people have been killed. But he said the success of the plan hinged on the Ankara government's willingness to recognise "the existence of the Kurdish people" - who number 13 million in Turkey - and to reduce security forces in the Kurdish region.

He also warned that the PKK would stop the withdrawal if its forces came under attack from Turkey.

There have been attempts to end the fighting before, but the current push marks the first time that a complete PKK withdrawal from Turkey is part of a plan agreed upon by both sides. Ankara says there are about 1,500 PKK fighters in eastern and south-eastern Anatolia.

The government's ultimate aim is for PKK rebel units to be dissolved and weapons to be destroyed or handed over to a third party, such as the authorities in Kurdish-run northern Iraq.

As peace talks gathered pace, Mr Ocalan last month called on the PKK to stop attacks against security forces and withdraw its fighters from Turkey to rebel camps in northern Iraq. No clashes between security forces and rebels have been reported since then.

Mr Davutoglu compared the peace process to swimming across a river.

Up to the halfway point, "people think of turning back, because the way is shorter", the foreign minister said in an interview published in the Radikal newspaper yesterday. "But once you have passed the middle, turning back is longer and riskier at the same time."

"I am convinced that we have reached the point of no return," he said.

It remains unclear what kind of concessions Ankara is ready to make in return for an end to the PKK's armed struggle.

Mr Ocalan and Kurdish politicians in Turkey have called for a guarantee of Kurdish rights in a new constitution that is being drafted by parliament, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, has not made any firm commitments. The current constitution, drawn up after a military coup in 1982, restricts rights of minorities in the name of national unity.

Mr Karayilan said the new constitution should "end the denial of the existence of the Kurdish people, accept its existence and freedom and guarantee the rights and freedoms of all identities, beliefs and confessions".

It was not clear whether the acting PKK chief regarded Mr Ocalan's release as a precondition for permanent disarmament.

"It is a step to end the conflict in the military field," Veysel Ayhan, director of the International Middle East Peace Research Center, a think tank in Ankara, said yesterday.

A withdrawal of PKK fighters without incident would lower the risk of armed conflict in future, he said.

Mr Ayhan said the work on the new constitution was now crucial. "For the first time, I am hopeful today," he said.




But distrust between the two sides still runs deep, as the circumstances of Mr Karayilan's statement yesterday made clear.

Turkish media reported from northern Iraq that the news conference by the acting PKK chief was delayed for several hours because PKK fighters had spotted Turkish military drones in the sky over the PKK headquarters in the Qandil Mountains, near Iraq's border with Iran and about 100 kilometres south of the Turkish border.

Turkey has staged dozens of cross-border raids on PKK positions in Iraq in recent years. Turkish fighter jets flew over Qandil late Wednesday, the ANF agency reported.

Mr Erdogan's Kurdish peace initiative has also triggered protests by the opposition and by Turkish nationalists, who are concerned that the prime minister is risking the unity of the country by negotiating with the PKK.

Muharrem Ince, a leading MP of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), said the PKK was trying to make Turkey "change the constitution and laws under the shadow of the gun".

Faruk Bal, deputy leader of the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), also said Mr Karayilan was trying to blackmail Turkey into drafting a constitution to his liking with the threat of new fighting. "Shame on those who have brought Turkey to this stage," Mr Bal said.

There was no immediate reaction by Mr Erdogan, who was taking part in a routine meeting of the National Security Council, which brings together Turkey's political and military leadership.



* With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse